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What Did The Office Workers Of The 1600s Eat?
June 22, 2012 10:10 AM   Subscribe

I always hear that the traditionally heavy US diet ( or any " traditional" cuisine, really ) was developed for people working long hard hours of manual labor, farm work, etc., so what did the people who had sedentary, less active jobs eat? What were the historical diets of people who didn't haul lumber through the woods or dig ditches, but recorded numbers or did accounting or translated documents?
posted by The Whelk to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
 
There is a fair amount of scholarship about monks unhealthy eating; although there would be a spectrum in religious orders (aestheic hermit - parish priest) depending on the source of the food.
posted by saucysault at 10:20 AM on June 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


Well, from your title, which I'm assuming is a joke, there weren't really any office workers in the 1600's. The people who didn't have to do manual labor back then were royalty, and they were fat. And pale. And that was the 'sexy' of the time, apparently.
posted by Grither at 10:21 AM on June 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


Historically, those people didn't exist.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:32 AM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'd say there are two factors. First, even a "sedentary" job required a lot more physical movement than ours does today. The very act of daily living - central heat nonexistent or poor, routinely walking much longer distances, manually instead of electronically filing documents - all added up.

But second, a lot of times the people who were on the more sedentary end ate the same diet and it was terrible for them. Gout, obesity, and congestive heart disease were big issues for people in the 19th centuries. Diet was tied to a lot of negative health effects, producing the massive era (well, maybe it's not over) of experimentation with diet and nutrition science as a way of trying to avoid or treat lifestyle-related disease - everything from the Graham cracker to vegetarianism to "Fletcherizing" or chewing your food a ridiculous number of times. And even in the eighteenth century, you can find diary entries by people who are seeking to limit their consumption of certain kinds of foods and beverages for reasons of health or managing their weight.

The American diet underwent a real lot of change between the 18th century and the early 20th century, though, and over time refinement/processing became a more and more widespread issue, and individual diets were influenced in the extreme by income, region, and professionl, so it's really hard to generalize.
posted by Miko at 10:33 AM on June 22, 2012 [12 favorites]


In the nineteenth century, a lot of people ate fatty, carb-laden "traditional" diets and suffered for it.

I don't know that obesity was a problem, because there were no cars, no elevators, etc. Which meant that even people with "sedentary" lifestyles had to engage in more exercise than the average modern person who drives everywhere, takes the elevator to their office on the second floor, and the like.

But a lot of people had conditions like gout, as well as chronic indigestion.
posted by Sara C. at 10:34 AM on June 22, 2012


there weren't really any office workers in the 1600's.

This is just so wrong. There were indeed the equivalent of office workers: accoutants, secretaries, archivists, planners.
posted by Miko at 10:34 AM on June 22, 2012 [27 favorites]


Here's a big pile of 17th century English recipes. Carp, potages, capons, and "biskits" are recurring themes.
posted by Iridic at 10:38 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


...cartographers, shipping/receiving clerks, academic support staff, printing operation staff, military organizational support...
posted by Miko at 10:39 AM on June 22, 2012 [12 favorites]


The issue is portion sizes, which have increased so dramatically over the past thirty years. Plus, people never used to sit at desks - for the longest time people worked standing up at higher tables, using high stools for rest.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:41 AM on June 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Food Timeline is a really good place to start to get excerpts from various primary sources on the detail of what people ate, said they ate, or bragged about eating. Health and Diet in 19th Century America is a great article but not available for a free read.
posted by Miko at 10:43 AM on June 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


The fantastic All the King's Cooks: The Tudor Kitchens of King Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace describes the compensation of various staff members:
Of greater importance [than wages], however, was the granting of 'bouche of court' — the right to receive food and other necessaries from the court. ... [O]rdinary officers of the household received:

For their Bouche after supper, everie of them being lodged within the court, dim' [half] chet lofe, dim' gallon of ale
(A 'chet lofe' was a coarser wheatmeal loaf, contrasted with the manchet loafs of fine white flour.)

Later there is a table reflecting the difference between the dishes ('messes') set out at the table of the Lord Great Master versus the tables for the Treasurer and Comptroller (senior members of the household staff). It's hard to reproduce a table here on MeFi, but I'll list the pertinent differences.

First, the variety was much greater for the Lord Great Master. His table had heron, bittern, curlew, chickens, cocks, plovers, snipes, larks, rabbits, and lamb, whereas the treasurer and comptroller had only heron, cocks, plovers, and lamb. Second, the Lord Great Master's table had much larger portions, partly reflecting a larger table and partly reflecting his higher status.

Another description of the difference in menus:
At the bottom of the scale came the servants, porters, scourers and turn-broaches (spit-turners), and the children of the various domestic officers. They took their meals of bread, beef, mutton, veal (or ling and other sea-fish for fish days) and ale on the shop floor, so to speak, where they worked. Next came the officers, sergeants, clerks, yeomen, porters and grooms, most of whom dined in the Great Hall, the 'works canteen', on a similar menu, but with the addition of the more delicate lamb, goose and coney, or cod, plaice and whiting on fish days. The senior members of the household dined at the upper end of the hall, in the King's Great Chamber or Watching Chamber, and in the King's Council Chamber, the 'executive staff restaurant' of the palace. For them there was far better food, including:

[and again there's a table here, but I'll reproduce it in list form]:

Meat and poultry
beef, mutton, veal, lamb, kid, rabbits (young), coneys (full-grown rabbits), heron, bittern, curlew, teal, pigeon, sea-mew (common gull), gull (other species), plover, lark, snipe, cock, chicken, capon

Fish
purpoise, bream, lamprey, plaice, gurnard, byrt (turbot), tench, whiting, haddock, sole, pike, salmon, ling, chevin (chub)

Sweet dishes
tarts, doucets (sweet flans), fritters, fryaundes ('delicacies'), fruit, butter, eggs
The royal diet included all of that plus another equally long list of additional meats, fish, and sweet dishes.
posted by jedicus at 10:45 AM on June 22, 2012 [17 favorites]


I read somewhere that the reason cucumber sandwiches were invented was for victorian ladies to show off the fact they did not need nutritious/high-calorie food, because they barely needed the energy.

Also, Marie Antoinette would usually ignore the feasts at Versailles and have a clear soup in private to keep her weight in check.
posted by Tarumba at 10:51 AM on June 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


First, even a "sedentary" job required a lot more physical movement than ours does today.

Indeed. Even aristocrats and royalty spent much of their time hunting on horseback, attending dances, practising with with weapons and other physically taxing activities. Strolling through a manicured garden might have been considered the height of languor at the time, today that's considered light exercise.

Clerks and other sedentary workers still probably walked miles every day to and from work and up flights of stairs.
posted by atrazine at 10:59 AM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Illness is another factor that may have prevented sedentary people from becoming obese even as they suffered gout and other ill effects from their terrible diets. Getting diarrhea at least once a month because you don't have access to clean water is an effective (if unpleasant) weight-loss plan. If you've ever spent much time in developing countries, you've probably experienced this personally.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 11:02 AM on June 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


A note on portion size, from the book: "Although approximate, these estimates [based on market prices and account records] show that most officers, yeomen and grooms — the bulk of the household staff — would be eating over 2lb 7oz (1100g) of meat every day:

[table showing estimates redacted, but it's thorough and accounts for meat shrinking during preparation]

Similar quantities were prepared for the senior officers, the courtiers, and the King, but, as already mentioned, for them the range of dishes and quality were far superior, as were their methods of preparation."

Note that even for the officers, yeomen, and grooms that meat was primarily made up of beef, veal, and mutton, not what we would consider the leanest or healthiest meats.

I should point out that the 'white collar' workers at Hampton Court Palace are probably not representative of the whole of Tudor England. Hampton Court Palace spent an absolute fortune on food. One record from the 1540s shows an annual expenditure of "£16,327 5s 5d on food alone, and a further £4,445 2s 6d on transport costs, fuel and equipment required for its acquisition and preparation."

That's approximately £6,388,758 in 2005, or nearly $10 million, for a palace that served up to 1200 people, so $8300/person/year if it was packed year-round, which it wasn't. That's a pretty healthy amount even by modern standards. Obviously the royal and noble diets consumed a disproportionate share of the costs, but I think it's safe to assume that the 'white collar' workers fell somewhere near that simple average.
posted by jedicus at 11:05 AM on June 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Clerks and other sedentary workers still probably walked miles every day to and from work and up flights of stairs.

Quoted for truth.

Samuel Pepys--who was, in his time, pretty much at or near the pinnacle of the British Civil Service hierarchy--walked, quite literally, Miles, every single day. As did almost everyone involved in the so-called sedentary professions of the time, which Miko has been so kind as to enumerate above.
posted by Chrischris at 11:06 AM on June 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


You might want to peruse Pepys' diary. Here's a summation of his protein-glutted breakfasts and another of his "best ever dinner."

The diary makes plentiful mention of cook's shops (sometimes shortened to "cook's"), the contemporary equivalent of the sit-down/carry-out urban lunch spot. Peter Earle quotes Misson in The Making of the English Middle Class: "Generally four spits, one over another carry round each five or six pieces of butchers (never anything else; if you would have a fowl or a pidgeon you must bespeak it) meat, beef, mutton, veal, pork and lamb. You have what quantity you please cut off, fat, lean, much or little done, with this a little salt and mustard upon the side of a plate, and a bottle of beer and a roll, and there is your whole feast."
posted by Iridic at 11:10 AM on June 22, 2012 [11 favorites]


Contrary to what Grither said, being fat was not the necessary status of royalty nor the absolute ideal. I read a biography of Elizabeth I which noted that she ate sparingly and took pride in her thin figure, for example.

It also seems that upper-class men led reasonably active lifestyles as there are a lot of mentions of riding, hunting, and even tennis playing. Another thing to note is that while the banquets of the royalty were enormous and lavish, that doesn't mean everyone was stuffing their faces every night - a lot of it was excess to show off wealth.
posted by vanitas at 11:29 AM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


...and they were fat. And pale. And that was the 'sexy' of the time, apparently.

The unattainable in a given society is "sexy". Commoners were sunburnt and emaciated, so pale Reubenesque women were attractive, fertility goddesses were depicted as very fat, etc, continuing up through Marilyn Monroe to recent decades. Now, lots of people are fat and pale from being inside all the time, so the "ideal" is fit and tanned.
posted by Evilspork at 11:30 AM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


It seems to me (or, rather, I have read) that the major difference between modern and historical diets is sugar. Sugar used to be rare, and expensive, and now it's cheap, and in nearly everything we eat.
posted by sportbucket at 11:33 AM on June 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


During the late 19th century here in the US, prior to Unions and workers rights, office workers, like any other workers weren't allowed much free time to get a bite to eat. They also worked long hours and although it wasn't physically laborious it was laborious just the same. Generally restaurants would have big lunches with plenty of beer to help take the edge off.
posted by JJ86 at 11:33 AM on June 22, 2012


It also seems that upper-class men led reasonably active lifestyles as there are a lot of mentions of riding, hunting, and even tennis playing. Another thing to note is that while the banquets of the royalty were enormous and lavish, that doesn't mean everyone was stuffing their faces every night - a lot of it was excess to show off wealth.

I was reading a book about early Victorian meals (and I forget which one, and I am not at home) which pointed out that Victorian meals (for the wealthy, of course - everyone else had much less food) were generally not "service a la Russe", ie in courses where everyone is served soup and fish and meat and so on. All the dishes were on the table at once and you helped yourself. So some of those long lists of Victorian dinners that seem so gluttonous now really did not reflect what everyone was eating - there might have been pork and fish and pie and game and peacock on the table, but you didn't eat a full serving of each unless you were a Diamond Jim Brady type.
posted by Frowner at 11:33 AM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you mean 1600s America, I think they ate the same as the hard-laboring people, just less of it, because they'd be less hungry. Bread, meat, milk from their cows. What vegetables/crops they could grow, and wild fruits like berries. Pie. Cider, beer, tea. Any diary from that period will have at least some mentions of food, and the meals always seem pretty basic. You don't get the feeling that the food options were that varied. Although 1600s "sedentary" work was much more difficult than ours, obviously, and just getting that food onto your plate was far more strenuous.

And since we're talking about size, people did get fat back then, even some active people (though I think usually when they were older and presumably a bit less active.) Benjamin Church got very fat, and I could swear I read something about John Mason getting fat as well, but can't find it now. But I assume that was relatively rare, just because such a big deal was made of it. (Then again people make a big deal of it now, so...) I'm thinking of Henry Knox, who had a part desk job, part hauling-heavy-cannons-miles-through-the-snow job in the 18th century, and who was known for being very large. As was his wife, who came from an upper-class family and probably probably didn't do much of her own housework, but it seems her being overweight was pretty unusual too. (Or maybe people then were just mean, as they are now: her size is enormous; I am frightened when I look at her; I verily believe that her waist is as large as three of yours at least.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:39 AM on June 22, 2012


What were the historical diets of people who didn't haul lumber through the woods or dig ditches, but recorded numbers or did accounting or translated documents?

Keep in mind, too, the gender division of labor. Men who worked in these sorts of non-heavy-labor jobs most likely had wives who did all of the hot, heavy labor at home, by hand and with virtually no labor-saving devices: cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. Even if you could afford a servant or two to help with at least some of this labor, it was extremely hard, heavy work.
posted by scody at 11:45 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


continuing up through Marilyn Monroe to recent decades

Not a straight line, though - body ideals are pretty complex, and the idea that everyone liked them sturdier back when and doesn't now obscures a lot of short-term fads and fashions in for the female body. Marilyn Monroe wasn't the end of a long line of plumper beauties going back to ancient times; she was preceded by body ideals in the 1820s/30s and again the 1920s, to choose only two historical periods, for slim, lean-limbed, willowy and non-curvy women's bodies, for instance. It has gone in many directions, emphasized different parts and profiles and heights and curves and shapes and widths, and has always been a matter of fashion; since any ideal is unattainable for at least some people and easy for at least some others, the difficulty of matching the ideal isn't the only standard for estimations of beauty. The ideal changes regardless.
posted by Miko at 12:48 PM on June 22, 2012 [8 favorites]


I read a biography of Elizabeth I which noted that she ate sparingly and took pride in her thin figure, for example.

I read a biography of Diane de Poitiers (mistress to Henri II of France) - she was much older than the King, and looked much younger than her age, and it was said that she used love spells to entrance the King.

In fact, she followed a lot of "modern" advice on fashion and fitness - she ate a sparing, healthy diet, was physically active, wore chic black and white clothes, and bathed regularly. (She was also extremely intelligent, witty, and business-savvy - an extraordinary woman all-around, in fact.)

There is a novel called Slammerkin which centers on the working poor - not the middle-class or wealthy - but the description of food that was available in the city was enough to turn my stomach. Milk adulterated with snail juice to make it seem fresh and foamy. Rotten meat and poultry. Bread adulterated with who-knows-what. Another reference to which I don't have the link anymore stated that many nineteenth-century foods were mixed with poisonous substances - arsenic in the beer to make it foam better, something else to make canned peas seem bright green, etc. What this tells me is that even the urban middle class which could afford not to go hungry still didn't get a lot of quality food in many cases. (They probably had their milk with a side of snail juice as well, if that is what was sold in the city.) Also, many people (more so men than women) drank heavily as a matter of course, to the point of what many of us would think of as alcoholism (that is one reason the Temperance movement could gain traction), so many empty calories from that as well.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:53 PM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Samuel Pepys--who was, in his time, pretty much at or near the pinnacle of the British Civil Service hierarchy--walked, quite literally, Miles, every single day.

Beat me to it. Lots and lots of walking.

A little later than Pepys, George Cheyne would write about the 'English Malady' of melancholy and other 'nervous diseases' that he blamed on a combination of urban living, rich and spiced food (which he accounted to colonial expansion), and limited exercise. Cheyne was his own test case, reportedly weighing in at 32 stone (450 lbs) before adopting a highly restricted diet. He promoted rest cures and spa treatments for a burgeoning middle class, got very rich as a result, and lived into his seventies.
posted by holgate at 1:02 PM on June 22, 2012


Lots and lots of walking.

Yeah, I'm routinely awed at the amount of walking people would do. I've read a bunch of New England diaries, and people would jot things down like "walked to town" or "brought berries to Mrs. Andrews and stayed for tea" without mentioning that town or Mrs. Andrews was, like, six miles away one way. People hoofed it.
posted by Miko at 1:31 PM on June 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


many nineteenth-century foods were mixed with poisonous substances - arsenic in the beer to make it foam better, something else to make canned peas seem bright green, etc.

I just recently read something that stated that researchers have tried to replicate a lot of these recipes (especially the claims of chalk, bone dust, etc. being added to bread), and that the foods came out looking and tasting nothing like anything that would be recognized as the food in question, let alone be edible.

It's thought that these claims were overstated in the media of the time. And, in fact, the mere fact that they appear in the media of the time implies that adulturated foods were noteworthy and not the standard fare for the average person.
posted by Sara C. at 1:35 PM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


It seems to me (or, rather, I have read) that the major difference between modern and historical diets is sugar. Sugar used to be rare, and expensive, and now it's cheap, and in nearly everything we eat.

From All the King's Cooks again: "In early sixteenth century England sugar cost around 3d or 4d a pound (450g), but its growing popularity and scarcity saw it rise to 9d or 10d by 1544, when its price had to be checked by royal proclamation." 10d in 1550 is the equivalent of about $14 today, which is about 40 times the modern price of sugar in the US.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this high price, the ostentatious use of sugar as a status symbol was a big thing in Tudor England. Huge (like, carried by four men) sculptures out of sugar were used as centerpieces: realistic replicas of castles, cathedrals, chess sets, and other foods (e.g. walnuts, fruits, etc) were popular (here's a small example of a plate-sized Tudor rose made of sugar). These would be painted and gilded with gold leaf (itself an extremely laborious thing to produce by hand).

Another place sugar came into use was the manufacture of hypocras, a sweetened spiced wine. This was especially important in England because there was no domestic wine industry (the Medieval warm period having ended) and they did not know how to create airtight vessels for wine (that knowledge was lost with the end of the Roman empire). Thus, by the time wine went from the vineyard to the coast, crossed the channel, and then got to its final destination, it was already in fairly sad shape. The best wine was actually the youngest and freshest available. The idea of aging wine is a relatively modern innovation. Although it is a myth that people in the Medieval era used spices to cover the taste of rotten meat, hypocras was used to extend the useful life of wine.

This is all to say that, the higher someone's social status, the more sugar they would have consumed, even in the 1600s, both in sweet desserts and in drinks. Since most 'sedentary' professions were at least middle class and often connected with the government (and thus royalty), they likely had at least some access to sugar. It was expensive, but not insanely so.
posted by jedicus at 2:02 PM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


uge (like, carried by four men) sculptures out of sugar were used as centerpieces

And the white porcelain figurines people still use as table decorations today evolved to mimic those - that's where the idea comes from, only made permanent in china. I've seen some recreated....they're mindblowing.
posted by Miko at 2:06 PM on June 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


Just wanted to chime back in to agree with the point that curvaciousness has most certainly not consistently been the beauty ideal all the way through history up until Marilyn Monroe.

In the 19th century, Empress Elisabeth of Austria was widely regarded as "the most beautiful woman in Europe" for several decades, and she was very slender. In addition to limiting her food intake and fasting routinely (there are some thoughts she may have had anorexia), she was extremely physically fit: she was highly regarded as a horsewoman and fencer, equipped all of her residences with gymnasiums, and took very long, vigorous walks or hikes daily, in all weather. Her ladies-in-waiting routinely complained of being pushed to the point of physical exhaustion and near-starvation in order to keep up with her.
posted by scody at 3:10 PM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


In contrast to the Monks, Abbess (and
Musician and scholar) Hildegard von Bingen in the eleventh century had very definite ideas about food (not the best link, her primary writings are widely available).
posted by saucysault at 5:37 PM on June 22, 2012


jedicus The info is fascinating, but I think that the 1200 'members of the Palace household' would only list those who are, socially, worth mentioning. The palace would also have fed guests, visitors, and anyone who had business to transact, so there would have been lots of diners. Then the servants -- who aren't the people who hold 'named posts' but those who serve them -- would eat from the leftovers. Finally, the remnants would be distributed to the local poor who ate "from the basket" at the palace gate. Hospitality and charity were an intrinsic part of the social system. All that food is both a mark of wealth and status -- look how much we can consume! -- but it's also probably all being eaten by about 4 times the number of people who are actually mentioned in the list of 'members of the household'.

Also: YES, lots of Early modern people were fat, or what we would call fat. A quick look at paintings, prints and other engravings of anonymous crowds shows stocky bodies, double chins, bellies and boobs, on people of all ranks. We have a myth about our overwhelming bulk: yes, we are fatter than we used to be, but we are both more obsessed with our weight (we try to be very slim, and worry if we're not) and have much easier access to easily consumable food than Early Modern people did. Most people living in London and other centres didn't have access to kitchens -- they bought their food at cookshops or brought it to bakeries to have it cooked -- so they ate only a couple of times a day and didn't graze the way we do. And there was plenty of passive activity; they walked and stood more than they sat.

But people don't have to overeat to be fat: it's largely genetic, and populations get fat based on this. English, German and Dutch people are pretty plump now and were pretty plump then. There are lots and lots of substantial paunches in portraits of the prosperous, and there were plenty of superobese people -- Henry VIII himself is an excellent example, and Falstaff and Ursula the Pigwoman are both fictional examples. The English joked about the Dutch eating butter, and Dutch women being spectacularly endowed because of it. Descriptions of prostitutes (and images of them!) suggest that boobs and squishy curves were the primary draw: sexy meant meaty, in the imagery of the time.

They were also much less concerned with body size than we are: as they aged, they worried about their souls, not their bodies. In 1600 a 45 year old woman who had given birth to 8 or 10 children would not expect to be girlishly slim -- she'd expect to be stout, but she would not think of herself as 'fat'. She would only think of herself as 'fat' if her weight impeded her. Our notion of beauty and 'health' -- which suggests that a BMI of over 25 is 'overweight' -- would have been inexplicable.
posted by jrochest at 5:42 PM on June 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'd just like to add to Iridics great links above and note that Pepys was often constipated and regularly took physics and clysters for it. I can recall several passages (and, of course, cannot find them now) where he complains in his diary that he had taken a physic and stayed at home close to the chamberpot to wait for it to work. Pepys' diary is a brilliant resource for this sort of thing. The man wrote about EVERYTHING!
posted by ninazer0 at 8:26 PM on June 22, 2012


but I think that the 1200 'members of the Palace household' would only list those who are, socially, worth mentioning

I did not use the phrase "members of the Palace household"; I just said 1200 people. The exact quote from the book is: "Having to provide meals and accommodation for up to 1,200 people, it elevated domestic planning to a truly industrial scale." Given the discussion of the meals of even very low-level workers, I suspect that this number includes those workers and not just the middle and upper classes and nobility.

The palace would also have fed guests, visitors, and anyone who had business to transact, so there would have been lots of diners. Then the servants -- who aren't the people who hold 'named posts' but those who serve them -- would eat from the leftovers.

No, actually, the book discusses the meals given to servants, down to fairly low-level staff such as "servants, porters, scourers and turn-broaches (spit-turners), and the children of the various domestic officers." They did not simply pick at leftovers.

Finally, the remnants would be distributed to the local poor who ate "from the basket" at the palace gate.

The book discusses that practice. Notably, the King's leftovers were distributed directly to the poor.
posted by jedicus at 9:04 PM on June 22, 2012


Oh! I cross-posted this question to to the AskHistorians Reddit and got some really interesting stuff on monk's diets.
posted by The Whelk at 9:08 AM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


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